History of Biometrics: From fingerprint to eye scan
When crime increased in large cities at the end of the 19th century, resourceful criminalists developed “dactyloscopy” — better known as the fingerprint method.
Biometrics and the History of Identification
In the middle of the 19th century, biometrics was not a term used in the police and security environment. Rather, biometrics was considered an “art of living, measuring and calculating”. An art whose aim was to “justify human well-being through the division and use of time”, as Wilhelm Traugott Krug’s general dictionary of 1832 put it. A short time later, the meaning of the word began to change.
Today, biometrics subsume any physical characteristics or behaviors that are assumed to be individual and not subject to change. The identification of people is therefore based on the assumption that there are individual characteristics that unequivocally characterize a person.
Body measurement and identification services
The expansion of the police and security system in the second half of the 19th century led to the development of new forms of identification. After individuals were mainly recognized in writing through wanted letters and personal descriptions, the situation changed with the use of photography. But what are the characteristics by which a person can be recognized through an image?
One solution to this problem was physical traits. They should clearly ensure recognition. Alphonse Bertillon, a French detective, developed anthropometry, one of the first biometric methods, in the 1880s. It consisted of measuring people. A total of eleven measurements were taken from height to ear length and noted on a card, which was then filed in a file.
Within a short time, not only identification techniques were established, but also special authorities that specialized in recognizing people: the identification services. They form important criminal police departments to this day.
Fingerprints and Manhunt Network
As a result, many European security authorities, starting with the Paris identification service, began measuring people who were classified as suspicious. An “anthropometric registry” was also set up in Vienna in 1898 with the identification service.
Only a few years later, however, another identification technique, the fingerprint method, became established.
Its beginnings lie in India, where the British colonial administration was looking for ways to record people. Dactyloscopy soon found its way to England and from there it spread mainly to Europe, North and South America. The police authorities justified the expansion of security police institutions with the argument that crime had gone from being a local to a national problem.
The identification services systematically exchanged biometric information about registered persons, so that even before the outbreak of the First World War a (worldwide) search network for wanted criminals was created. Since then, the collection and processing of information has shaped the way the police see themselves. As the detective Anton Walitschek put it in the 1930s: “Information and evidence are the be-all and end-all of the police in all their branches, the first requirement for their work.”
Biometrics between security and convenience
Every biometric identification technique is based on the matching of features. In the fingerprint process, for example, patterns and properties of the fingertips, so-called minutiae, are compared with one another. Therefore, limit values must be set for how many matches two fingerprints are considered to be identical. With biometric methods, clear recognition is therefore not an objective observation, but a negotiation process.
Today, the use of these technologies is shifting away from criminal police or intelligence services to applications that shape our everyday lives. Fingerprint is used to open doors or a retina scan allows for faster airport check-in provided the passport contains fingerprints and a biometric passport photo.
They have now lost the criminalizing stigma that characterized registration using biometric methods in the 20th century. At present, biometric techniques have become a major economic factor within the security industry, sold primarily as practical applications that promise security at the same time.
Databases and registries
Biometric registries are sets of knowledge that are a precursor to modern databases. From a historical perspective, it is therefore possible to show what socio-political effects databases and stocks of knowledge have and how social orders and security concepts are inscribed in these forms of knowledge management.
In the case of biometric identification techniques, this is essentially evident on two levels. On the one hand, the registries offer the possibility of comparing databases independently of suspicion, so that patterns can be identified by linking information sources. Before looking for a needle in a haystack, not only does the haystack have to be piled up, but the seekers need an idea of what the needle they are looking for is made of. The mere storage in a database can therefore constitute a form of prejudice.
On the other hand, the question arises to what extent the methods of the identification service acted as a kind of catalyst in the repressive treatment of discriminated population groups? Finally, notions of crime and order also entered the registries because the identification services were aimed at specific population groups. For example, when the fingerprint procedure was introduced in the German Reich in 1912, it was stipulated that “all Gypsies regardless of criminal offenses and criminal responsibility” should be recorded.
When dealing with biometric identification techniques, the historical perspective is important for current applications, because long-term use instead of scientific verification represents the basis of legitimacy for biometric processes to this day, and social implications are often not considered.